Boards scramble to mail absentee ballots

Contributed photoColumbia County Board of Elections staff opening the nearly 2,000 absentee ballot applications that arrived in the mail June 2. Each application requires verification and processing, and then an absentee ballot and return mail envelope is sent to all eligible voters.

Thousands of absentee ballot applications are pouring in to Board of Elections offices in the Twin Counties for the June 23 primary election due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on April 24 issued an executive order requiring applications for postage-paid absentee ballots be sent to every eligible voter in New York state as concerns mounted over the safety of having large gatherings at polling sites.

In Columbia County, the Board of Elections mailed out 31,002 absentee ballot applications in May to both Republicans and Democrats, Republican Commissioner Kelly Miller-Simmons said.

“You will get one only if you are a registered Democrat or Republican,” Miller-Simmons said. “The governor stated that anybody can use the temporary illness reason for the election held on June 23, and that could be because of COVID-19, whether you are afraid of getting it, you are high-risk — if you are more comfortable voting by absentee ballot, the executive order said you should check the temporary illness box and the Board of Elections will send you an absentee ballot.”

Completed applications for absentee ballots have been coming in over the past few days.

“We had some trickling in for people who sent them in really quick,” Miller-Simmons said. “Then after Memorial Day weekend we received 900 on Tuesday, and a few hundred here and there, and then we got 2,000 in one day.”

After voters submit their absentee ballot application, they will be reviewed, put into the system and then, if eligible, an absentee ballot will be sent to them.

“There is processing involved for every single application,” Columbia County Democratic Commissioner Ken Dow said. “Just opening them takes a few hours, then every one has to be processed — information has to be entered into the voter database registration system. There is also bipartisan double checking by staff. Then we generate lists of labels, which we use to send the actual ballots out to the people who requested them.”

Roughly 12,700 applications were sent to registered Republicans, and around 18,300 to Democrats for the primary election, with the last batch going out no later than May 26, Dow said.

Voters looking to vote by absentee ballot in the primary race should complete and mail in their application as soon as possible, Dow said.

“The deadline to send in applications is at least a week before Election Day, but it is really important to get them in because there is a lot of handling and work to be done to turn them around,” Dow said. “If they do come in at the last legal moment, it will be difficult to turn them around and get them out. So sooner is very important.”

Completed applications for absentee ballots have also been coming in to the Greene County Board of Elections.

“Over the past two days, we got over a thousand applications,” said Greene County Democratic Commissioner Marie Metzler. “We have stacks and stacks of them. I believe there were 20,000-plus mailed out for both Democrats and Republicans.

With Cuomo’s executive order to send out applications to all eligible voters, the initial mailing was so daunting Greene County brought in additional help to get them all out.

“It is way more than normal, so we have had to bring in two elections inspectors that work with us on normal Election Days, who have information and knowledge of the process to help us process all these absentee ballot applications,” Greene County Republican Commissioner Brent Bogardus said.

The applications were mailed out around 10 days ago, he said.

“We had a vendor we work with do it because this is almost 13,000 letters to Republican voters and a little over 9,000 for Democratic voters,” Bogardus said. “It was an extensive amount of mailing, which was not possible to do in our office.”

Greene County Board of Elections officials will process all of the applications, he added.

While all eligible voters have the option to vote by absentee ballot in this year’s primary, polling sites will still be open for in-person voting June 23.

“People can still vote in person at their normal polling site on Primary Day,” Bogardus said. “This is not a requirement — they don’t have to do this, but if people have concerns about the coronavirus issue, this is a vehicle available to them.”

All 25 usual polling sites in Greene County will be operating June 23, and will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Precautions against the virus will also be taken, Bogardus said, including providing elections inspectors with face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and a cleaning service will sanitize the area both the day before and the day after the primary.

“We were really pleasantly surprised when we reached out to our elections inspectors and detailed what we were doing to make sure they were still comfortable,” Bogardus said. “We got an overwhelmingly positive response from them that they were ready, willing and able to work on Election Day.”

Columbia County will have fewer polling sites than usual this year for in-person voting, Dow said. There will be 13 sites this year, compared to 32 in a typical primary race.

“We have had to consolidate a lot of polling places. People will be getting postcards in the mail advising them of any changes to the location of their polling places because of coronavirus,” Dow said. “A lot of people who normally work as poll workers are uncomfortable doing that under these circumstances, so we have fewer poll workers than usual.”

Early voting is also available on Primary Day statewide, and begins June 13.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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